This week in history: ‘Big Bill’s’ big disaster

Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson, born this week, happened to be out of town when the S.S. Eastland sank in the Chicago River in 1915. Here’s a look at how he handled the tragedy.

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Portrait of Chicago mayor William Hale Thompson in 1927

Mayor William Hale Thompson sits for a portrait in 1927 in front of a fireplace in a room in Chicago holding a newspaper and looking toward the camera.

From the Sun-Times archives.

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

Mayor William Hale Thompson — nicknamed “Big Bill” — lived up to his nickname in everything he did as head of Chicago in the 1910s and 20s. His big rhetoric ensured his was the only voice in the room, and his big campaign stunts demanded voters’ attention. Of course, his blunders also turned out to be larger than life, but his reforms and dreams for Chicago made him an unforgettable force.

The Al Capone-connected mayor, who was born this week on May 14, 1869, served the city through some dark moments from the United States’ entry into World War I through the 1919 race riots and to the Outfit-driven crime spree of the late 1920s. Elected in 1915, his first major test as mayor arrived that same year.

In the morning hours of Saturday, July 24, a party of Western Electric employees boarded the S.S. Eastland, docked in the Chicago River at the Clark Street Bridge, for the company’s fifth annual picnic. But before the ship could leave the river, it rolled over, sending 2,500 passengers and crew members into the water. About 844 lives were lost that day.

Thompson happened to be in San Francisco at the time, but the Chicago Daily News published the telegram he received that same day from his acting mayor: “Steamship Eastland turned over on side in river this morning at Clark street bridge. Twenty-five hundred employees of Western Electric company in excursion on board. Estimate 200 to 300 dead. Everything being done to take care of the situation.” The mayor promised to rush home in “a special train if possible” and declared July 29 a day of mourning.

The press and the street car men’s union greeted Thompson, his wife and “booster” party at the station on July 28, the paper reported. “It is the gloomiest day in Chicago’s history,” he told them. When asked about the “presidential boom” surrounding the mayor, he replied grimly, “This is no time to talk politics. I have got plenty to attend to right here in Chicago.”

The mayor started with a committee to secure relief funds. The Daily News published lists every day detailing the latest donors. By July 27, the fund topped $225,000 with a separate $100,000 donation from the Western Electric Company. On Aug. 3, the paper declared that the fund had raised almost $350,000, enough money “to provide for the present and future needs of sufferers, according to a statement issued by the mayor’s general relief committee.” The fund remained open and raised $371,355 by Aug. 26 of the same year.

“Big Bill” also confronted claims of corrupt undertakers who charged the families of Eastland victims exorbitant amounts of money to bury their loved ones. On July 30, called undertaker Frank E. Reda to his office to “show cause why his license should not be revoked,” the paper reported. The funeral director stood accused of overcharging the wife of disaster victim Leonardo Greco to the tune of $284, a massive sum for most people at the time.

“Mayor Thompson went to the home yesterday,” the paper continued. “He found the woman with two babies in destitute circumstances. She had no money to pay the undertaker, she said, and the mayor asked her for the bill. He was astounded when he saw what Reda charged.”

The Daily News printed a copy of the bill:

Funeral bill for Eastland disaster victim in Chicago

Frank E. Reda’s funeral bill to the widow of Leonardo Greco, a victim of the Eastland disaster on July 24, 1915, as it appeared in the Chicago Daily News on July 30, 1915.

From the Sun-Times archives

“I’m going to put a stop to this,” he said.

Reda told the paper the next day that the widow “expressed the desire to give her husband a funeral calling for the more expensive materials.”

Days later, Cy De Vry, head of Lincoln Park Zoo, told the mayor that one of his attendants lost his daughter in the disaster, and when he found her body “at an undertaking establishment in Federal Street,” the director charged the father $333, “or almost half of a year’s wages for the man,” the paper said on Aug. 2.

The mayor directed the complaint to the commissioner of health for an investigation, and he personally revoked Reda’s license the following day.

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